The first time I saw Adrien Brette, I stopped breathing.
Adrien is stunning. I know that’s not a word guys use.
But in his case, it’s the only one that works. I had to
consciously think about pulling air into my lungs for a
good thirty seconds after he walked into the dining room
of the Grand Hotel. Of course, I’d been having trouble
breathing anyway. The Dining Room of the august old
resort in Point Clear wasn’t the sort of place a farm
boy from Iowa felt comfortable. It was too Great Gatsby,
too subtly feminine, too Old South for me.
I didn’t fit in. Adrien did.
He strolled through the garden of
white-clothed tables and gabbing old biddies like he
owned every one of them and they meant less than nothing
to him. The lines of his creamy summer suit hung
perfectly on his lean frame and he moved with the sort
of elegance the rest of us hate because it makes us feel
gawky. God knows, I did.
I sat there, the humidity of a
south Alabama spring defeating both the air conditioning
and my efforts to look like I wore a suit every day and
dined in hundred-and-fifty-year-old hotels all the time.
I felt sweaty, awkward, rumpled, and my tie strangled
me. It was probably the wrong color, too. The whole
concept of “dress for success” defeats me. So do fancy,
upper-class restaurants with names like The Dining Room,
where the waiters can tell at a glance you don’t belong.
I looked down, fiddling with my
coffee cup so I wouldn’t be caught staring at a handsome
guy. I’m not ashamed I’m gay, but I don’t go around
advertising it, either. Friends know. My family knows.
Everyone else? Well, I don’t like being stared at and I
really don’t like being the center of attention, so I
keep it low key. Very low key. Practically non-key, if
my love life is any indication. I for sure didn’t feel
like being sneered at by Mr. Old Hollywood Elegance.
My head popped up and I stared
right into more elegance than Hollywood had turned out
since 1945. And the deepest green eyes I’d ever seen. I
managed to stammer out a yes.
“Adrien Brette. Thank you for
agreeing to come out here.”
I scrambled to my feet, managing to
drop my napkin on the way, and held out my hand. Adrien
had the perfect grip—not so firm as to make it seem like
he was trying to prove something, but firm enough to
show he was serious. “Thank you for offering me a chance
to interview for the job, Mr. Brette.” I got that out
with only a stammer or two.
He gestured for me to sit again. I
reached for my fallen napkin, but a waiter beat me to
it, handing me a fresh one. I could have died. I slid
into my chair, taking the napkin before the guy could
spread it in my lap and complete my mortification.
Adrien waved the waiter and his
napkin back. “We’ll get our food first. Bring me a club
soda. And a Pendleton’s, neat. Do you want something
else to drink, Mr. Huggins?”
“No, thanks. Coffee’s fine.” Not
like I needed any more caffeine, jittery as I was. But I
wasn’t about to risk alcohol at brunch with a
prospective employer. Besides, it was way too early in
the day for me.
I followed Adrien through the
bewildering array of foods on the buffet, ordering my
eggs from the imposing chef handling a multitude of
skillets with ease. Adrien kept the conversation on the
food until we sat down and actually began eating.
After a few bites and a sip of his
whiskey, he gestured with his fork, a bit of asparagus
speared on it tines-down, European style. “I like your
resume. It wasn’t cluttered with superlatives.”
A simple compliment shouldn’t have
made me blush, but it did. “I prefer straightforward and
“So do I. We seem to be a rare and
dying breed.” A sort of twinkle sparked in his eyes and
his lips twitched beneath his trim mustache. I’ve always
been a fool for a man with a mustache. Probably because
I can’t grow a decent one. Adrien’s was perfect: dark
and luxurious without being too thick. Perfect. Like
everything else about him.
Dark brown hair swept to one side,
a rare sprinkle of silver gleaming in the brightness of
the March sun. The faintest hint of lines showed around
his deep-set eyes. I still couldn’t believe how dark a
green they were. Not a hint of hazel. Not that Adrien
Brette would ever have something as common as hazel
eyes. Nothing about Adrien was common. Not the aquiline
sweep of his faintly hawkish nose, or the sculpted
planes of his narrow face. The strong chin, the marked
line of his jaw, the firmly indented hollows under his
high cheekbones. He would have been too pretty in his
youth to be masculine, but his prettiness had matured
into beauty. Startling, very masculine beauty.
I ran my tongue over my dry lips
and glanced down at what seemed the entire contents of
someone’s silverware drawer spread out on three sides of
Oh, God. Why hadn’t I listened when
Nana tried to teach me all this stuff? Okay, that was a
bread plate and a butter knife, obviously, but why did
anyone need three forks for brunch? And I had to present
myself for a job interview at the same time? I should
have told him I was on a diet or something. Only guys
never admit to it, even if they are on one. I was so
“The simplest way is to start with
the outside utensils and work your way in with each
I’ve always been transparent. Never
could lie. Never could hide anything from anyone. I
braced myself for the derision and looked up into a
smile that stopped my breathing all over again. Only the
slightest upturn at the corners of his mouth, but it
went all the way to his eyes. They sparkled. I got the
funniest feeling in my chest.
“Okay. I can do that.”
Stupid thing to say, but it was all
my brain came up with. I forced myself to pull deep on
the humid, half-cooled air.
“You don’t have to look so
frightened over it.” Adrien paused over another sip of
his whiskey. “Your resume doesn’t indicate you’ve had
much experience in what some would term the jet-set, but
those aren’t the main abilities I’m looking for. A
simple lesson in formal dining is hardly going to land
you in the reject pile.” He smiled, a faint little curve
at the very corners of his lips again. “In fact, it sets
you ahead of several others I’ve already spoken with.”
“Thanks.” What was I supposed to
say? “It’s a good thing. I’m not used to this.” I
indicated the room around us. “It’s great, but I don’t
exactly fit in.” Might as well be honest; he could see
it all anyway.
“A thing for which you should be
grateful.” He started to say something else, but was
interrupted by a woman walking right up to the table
without any sort of excuse-me or anything.
Her hat was larger than my car, I
swear. A wide-brimmed deal, which could have doubled as
an umbrella, piled up with silk roses and—God, a
quail?—ribbons pouring down off the back and a piece of
white netting over her face. All neatly matched up with
the light brown-gold of her suit. “Adrien?”
Either her tone or the use of his
first name made one of his eyebrows go up. The twinkle
vanished and his whole being turned arctic cold. If he’d
looked at me like that, I’d have slunk off like a dog
beaten with a cane.
It didn’t faze her, though. “It is
you! Why, it’s been forever since I’ve seen you. Josie
McMillan’s little get-together last summer. It’s
wonderful to see you again.” Lord, her voice carried,
and I noticed other people turning to look. I felt heat
rising up my neck and she wasn’t even talking to me.
The cold front across from me
turned a bit chillier. “I’m afraid I don’t recall.” The
drawl got deeper, yet the diction was somehow a little
more precise. The eyebrow arched a bit higher. “Mrs…”
“Welch. Vivian Welch.” The hat
swung a bit as she pulled an old-fashioned cigarette
holder from her purse, already loaded with one of the
white sticks, and toyed with it. “We spent at least
twenty minutes chatting on the veranda.”
“Really? How odd of me.” Adrien
eyed the cigarette with distaste curling one side of his
expressive mouth. “This is a non-smoking restaurant.”
“Oh, I know.” She waved the unlit
thing around as she huffed. “Everything’s gotten so
dreary these days. You can’t do anything anywhere.” Then
she smiled, bright and fake. “You know, I was talking
the other day with Rachel Wentley, and she reminded me
of the lovely summer parties you used to hold at Laure
with your wife. You should do those again. I’m sure the
place could use a little life. It must get dreadfully
boring up there all alone.”
“Oh, I’m never bored…with myself.”
I sputtered and reached for my
water glass to cover the laugh.
“You know, I really can’t believe
you don’t remember me.” If his barb lanced the polished
veneer Mrs. Welch had set in place, it didn’t show. She
went on light and airy as before. “I play bridge with
your cousin once a week at Chatterby’s.”
“Hardly surprising. I have
innumerable cousins of varying degrees of
respectability. My family has been here three hundred
years. After so long, I’m related to ninety percent of
the county. One of my cousins probably fixes your car,
cleans your house, and sells your children their weekly
illegal drug allotment.”
That got her. Rouged cheeks went
white, then a fairly cool shade of purple, which didn’t
go at all with the bright red lipstick being pressed
right onto her teeth. She dropped the cigarette holder
back in her purse and almost planted one manicured hand
on her hip. Then she must have decided it wasn’t
considered Southern belle proper and clenched her fist
at her side instead. The sugar syrup in her voice went
up about three tones. “Well, I seem to have disturbed
your meal, so I’ll be off to my hair appointment.” She
gave me the sort of glare usually reserved for dogs who
shit on the carpet, and I tried to look appropriately
subdued without busting up laughing. “Good day, Adrien.”
I couldn’t look at him. I knew if I
did, I’d lose it completely. Then he snorted. And I
looked up. He was watching her flounce away with a look
of complete satisfaction on his face. Then he glanced at
me and the twinkle returned. “And I didn’t even get a
chance to tell her no one wears hats that God-awful
anymore. If they ever did.”
I doubted the linen napkin muffled
much of my laughter, but I did try. It felt like I
laughed for about ten minutes, surely too long to endear
me as an employee, but it was no use. How marvelous
“Take a drink of your water and try
to breathe.” A good bit of laughter lurked in his tone.
“Yes, awful of me, but I’m never nice. I have a strong
reputation for being sharp-tongued. And it’s well known
I can’t abide a social climber. She knew what she was
risking.” His gaze was as sharp as his tongue. I felt it
go right through me. God forbid he ever consider me a
social climber. “Can you breathe yet?”
“Yes.” I managed to get myself
under control with the force of his gaze. “Yes, sir. I’m
sorry, sir.” Well, if I’d blown the job—likely—at least
I’d had one of the most enjoyable meals of my life.
“Why are you apologizing? It was
hilarious. I enjoyed every moment. I’m pleased you did
as well.” He picked up his fork. “Eat your food.”
“Yes, sir.” Suddenly the mass of
silver and china didn’t seem quite as intimidating.
* * *
As a job interview, my meeting with
Adrien ranked as the oddest I’d ever had or ever heard
of. He didn’t ask about my experience or my abilities.
He said he’d checked my references and knew all he
needed to know about that. Instead, we talked. About the
food. About the hotel. About the fact ladies didn’t wear
hats anymore—a good thing if they were going to be like
the horror we’d faced earlier. Well, actually, I talked
mostly. He asked questions. He made comments. And he
made me laugh at least twice more. He didn’t laugh,
unless you counted this odd sort of single snort as a
laugh. But he smiled and his eyes sparkled.
Eventually, he checked his watch,
an honest-to-God pocket watch he kept in a little slit
in his vest. “I have another appointment. May I walk you
out to your car?”
“Sure.” I’m not sure when I’d
stopped calling him “sir,” but it felt strange now. I’d
never dare call him by name, but “sir” seemed far too
formal after our conversation. Still, I should add some
courtesy to end the interview properly. “Thank you very
much for your consideration of my resume, Mr. Brette.”
He finished signing the check and
rose. “Nonsense. I placed an ad for an administrative
assistant. Naturally, I considered everyone with the
proper qualifications.” He directed me toward the door,
first leading, then dropping back to walk beside me once
we were out of the restaurant and into the hotel. “As I
said, I liked yours.”
Wait. He couldn’t mean…no. He
couldn’t possibly mean I was the only applicant who’d
made it to the interview. Of course not. No, he’d said
earlier he’d spoken with others. No doubt he was on his
way to another interview right now.
The walk out to my car took way too
long and not long enough. I felt clumsier than I ever
had in my life and struggled to not trip over my own
feet. Yet I knew, once we reached my car, I’d never see
Adrien Brette again. The idea saddened me, almost
frightened me. I couldn’t really explain the sensation,
not even to myself. He didn’t say a word as we walked,
but I was acutely aware of him. The tight feeling in my
chest wouldn’t ease up.
I fumbled with my key fob,
eventually finding the right button to unlock my car.
Adrien pulled the door open for me. “Someone will be in
touch with you. About the position.”
“Okay.” For a moment I wished I
were suave, witty, anything to let me turn his simple
courtesy—which was sort of weird these days—into
something warmer. I didn’t want to leave his presence.
In a couple of days, some impersonal phone call from the
person he’d hired instead of me would seal any chance of
seeing him again, and I knew when it happened I’d
probably cry. Thank God at least Adrien wouldn’t see it.
“Good. Take care, Joshua.” He
closed the door and turned away, strolling back toward
the hotel, every move as graceful as a dance.
Maybe I’d just wait ’til he was out
of sight and start crying now.
* * *
Talk about contrasts in lifestyles.
I threw my keys onto the bar between my little galley
kitchen and the rest of the efficiency apartment. Rent
by the month. No lease. No worries. No luxuries. Oh
well, I’d lived in worse and it fit the unemployment
check from my crappy pay-for-my-tuition job.
I loosened my tie—yeah, definitely
the wrong color for a power lunch—and grabbed a beer
from the fridge. It was probably still too early, but I
didn’t exactly care. I hadn’t cried over Adrien. Yet. It
was a close-run thing.
“Okay, I’m losing my mind. Crushing
on a guy I just met. Seriously? Josh, old son, you are
nuts, or desperate, or both.”
The phone caught me before I had a
chance to drop into the armchair in front of the TV and
settle into a serious funk. The caller ID on the screen
had me nearly inhaling my beer. Laure.
Damn. That was the name of Adrien’s
estate. Couldn’t I even have enough time to at least
daydream I’d gotten the job before I lost it? I
moistened my lips and answered it. “This is Joshua
Like I wouldn’t recognize those
deep tones and his high-bred Southern accent. “Yes, Mr.
“Adrien, please. I see no need for
Great. No job, but he wouldn’t snap
my head off if I happened to run into him like Mrs.
Welch and use his first name without permission. “A-Adrien.”
God, I sounded like a complete moron.
“Your resume says you’re available
for work right away. Is that still the case? If so, I’d
like you to come out to Laure first thing tomorrow.
Well, I realize you’ll have to pack and such. But before
lunch, if possible.”
“I g-got the job?” Okay, even if
I’d had it, the squeak in my voice killed it. I crushed
the still half-full can of beer in my hand—over the
sink, thank God—and waited for him to say he was sorry,
he’d made a mistake.
He laughed instead. A rich full
chuckle. It only lasted a few seconds, but it made my
bones ache in a good way. “You do, indeed, have the job.
Can you start tomorrow?”
“Y-yes, sir.” God, Huggins, get
hold of yourself. “I mean, yes, Mr. Brette, I can be
there tomorrow.” I’d have to figure out some way to
explain suits nicer than the one I had for interviews
would have to wait several paychecks. Maybe he’d be okay
with decent pants and button-downs or polos until then.
I wiped the beer remnants on the towel lying on the
counter and reached for a pen. “I’ll need the address.”
“Take 98 south past the Grand
Hotel. You’ll see the turnoff for Laure a few miles down
on the right, toward the bay.” He paused a moment, and I
wrote it down; though it was unlikely I’d forget
something so simple and so important. “I thought we’d
agreed you’d call me Adrien.”
“Yes, sir—I mean, Adrien.” It made
my chest tight to say his name. “I’m sorry, I forgot.”
“You’ll get used to it. ’Til
tomorrow, then. Have a pleasant evening, Joshua. I’ll
look forward to seeing you.”
The silence on the phone broke what
little decorum I had left. God! I was going to work for
a zillionaire Southern aristocrat a good twenty years
older than me and live at his fancy estate with great
green lawns and maids in frilly aprons and some old guy
named Jeeves or something, who looked like a statue,
standing at the front stairway ready to either direct
you to the library or skewer you with an epee, whatever
the hell an epee is. Me, Josh Huggins, Iowa farm boy,
fresh out of college with an English degree and a
certification in Administrative Assistance. Why did I
ever apply for the job in the first place? I’d spent
most of my life in the second-floor corner bedroom of a
clapboard farmhouse, looking out over the limbs of the
sole surviving elm for miles to the cornfields beyond.
I’d be dead lost in some big old Southern mansion,
probably break a gargoyle on the drive in or fall flat
on my face as I slipped on the polished oak floor in a
huge entry with a twenty-foot-high ceiling draped in
magnolias or something.
And do it all right in front of
him. Adrien. Oh God. Just shoot me now; it would be
kinder. I gave myself a week at the most before I
completely screwed up something.
Still…I’d have a week with him.
I couldn’t control the smile
settling over my lips. I’d have a week in his house,
helping him. Maybe standing close enough to smell his
Okay—time to get a grip on the
hormones. Yes, Adrien was sexy beyond belief. Hot in
ways I’d never even imagined. But he was also my new
boss. And straight. So go easy on the sniffing. Save the
fantasy for when I was all alone in bed.
Packing wouldn’t take long. I’d
only been here two weeks. Better wash the rest of the
beer off my hands, though. Having my entire wardrobe
smelling like Bud Light wouldn’t likely impress the boss
at all. And I found I dearly wanted to impress him for
one glorious week before the whole deal collapsed. I
owed him that much for taking a chance on me in the